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  • Some Notes on Nhanda, as Spoken by Mrs. Lucy Ryder† (1919-2003)
  • Juliette Blevins

Nhanda (a.k.a. Nhanta, Nanda) is an Aboriginal language once spoken in coastal regions north and south of the Murchison River in what is now Western Australia (Dixon 1980:xviii, Map 2, 154; Dixon 2002:xxviii, Map 0.1, WGb. Cf. Tindale 1974; Thieberger 1993, section 4.3 map, 4.3.10). Published linguistic descriptions of this language include early nineteenth-century wordlists, a short sketch in O'Grady, Voegelin, and Voegelin (1966), and my own sketch grammar (Blevins 2001a), based primarily on the speech of a single speaker, the late Mrs. Lucy Ryder (1919-2003). More recent publications mentioning linguistic features of Nhanda include Blevins (2001b, 2001c), Dixon (2002), and Laughren (2003). In contrast to Dixon (2002:xxx, xxxviii), who includes Blevins's (2001a) description of Nhanda as a "full or fullish grammar of good or quite good quality," a recent critique by Gerritsen (2004) questions the validity of the description as a whole. Gerritsen's concerns cover a range of issues from proper fieldwork methodology to accuracy of descriptions and purported contact influence from Dutch. The purpose of this note is to clarify points where misinterpretation could arise, and to refer the interested reader to linguistic studies where the issues in question are discussed more fully.1

The most serious issue raised by Gerritsen is who "the legitimate speakers of Nhanda" are (Gerritsen 2004:89). In his opinion, "the validity of identifying Ryder as a Nhanda speaker is open to question" (90). Here, Gerritsen misinterprets the basis of my own assessment of this issue, and simplifies the many factors playing a role in language identification. First, and foremost, it is important to recognize that the Nhanda I describe in Blevins 2001a is, except where noted otherwise, Nhanda as spoken by Mrs. Lucy Ryder. Identifying her language as Nhanda, as the term is used by sources in the first paragraph above, was relatively straightforward. Mrs. Ryder was brought up speaking Nhanda with, among others, her mother, Mrs. Mary Morgan, and her uncle, Mr. Watty Barker. Both individuals had passed away before my arrival in Australia, but Mrs. Morgan and Mr. Barker were both identified as Nhanda speakers by Ken Hale during his fieldwork in the same area (Ken Hale, pers. comm. 1992). Apart from this, all phonological and morphological peculiarities specific to Nhanda as described by [End Page 242] earlier researchers were found in Mrs. Ryder's speech, and tapes of Mr. Barker allowed me to verify similarities in phonetic detail as well. As Mrs. Marshall (and Mrs. Ryder) did not speak other Aboriginal languages, while another Nhanda speaker, Mr. Jack Councillor, interviewed by Ken Hale and Geoffrey O'Grady in 1960 (O'Grady 2001:228; Nash and O'Grady 2001:234), also spoke Malgana, I attributed differences in the speech of Mrs. Ryder and Mr. Councillor to either dialect differences, or interference from Malgana in Mr. Councillor's speech. All linguistic evidence, then, points to Mrs. Lucy Ryder as a speaker of Nhanda, as the term was used in earlier linguistic descriptions. Given Gerritsen's awareness of the importance of linguistic studies as a significant element in the substantiation of Native Title claims (Gerritsen 2004:89), it is all the more surprising that he would question, without any supporting linguistic evidence, Mrs. Ryder as a legitimate speaker of Nhanda.

Another serious criticism raised by Gerritsen (2004:88-89) concerns fieldwork practice. Ideally, field linguists should work with multiple speakers, so that features that may be uniquely associated with an individual are not attributed to the language as a whole, and so that the variation and diversity at all levels of grammar for a given language, dialect, or speech style can be properly described. However, this is not always possible, and where salvage work is involved, it can be especially difficult. Nevertheless, with the help of Mrs. Ryder's family and the Yamaji Language Centre, I sought out other speakers of Nhanda, and where possible made appointments to work with them. In this context, Gerritsen's specific critiques are not only surprising, but actually misrepresentative of both my own methods and the Nhanda language...


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